Irrigators in the Middle Rio Grande will be watching the skies for rain even more closely now. At its board meeting this week, the Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District announced it could soon enter what are called “P&P Operations”—when it can only meet the irrigation needs of about 8,800 acres of pueblo lands, which have the most senior water rights in the valley. The irrigation district had just under 21,000 acre feet of water in upstream storage as of Aug. 9 and estimated that water will be gone within two weeks. Once that stored water is “exhausted,” deliveries to other irrigators will cease until conditions change.
Matthew Hurteau spends a lot of time here on the eastern flank of the Jemez Mountains, checking on seedlings and dodging a sunburn. On a mid-July afternoon, rain drops from monsoon clouds in the valley south of us. But here, up above 7,000 feet, it’s sunny and hot. Until recently, this craggy landscape was carpeted by a dense pine forest. But today, as we look across the thousands of acres where the 2011 Las Conchas fire burned at its hottest, we’re taking in a panoramic view of the Sangre de Cristos to the north and Cochiti Reservoir and the Sandia Mountains down the Rio Grande Valley.
When drilling wells, operators inject chemicals, sand and water underground to create fissures that help move oil and natural gas to the wellhead more efficiently. That practice of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, uses a lot of water. And it leaves behind a lot of water, too. In 2015, even before the Permian Basin really started booming, industry produced 900 million barrels of wastewater. That’s about 116,000 acre feet—or almost all of the water currently stored in Elephant Butte Reservoir.
-In High Country News, Cally Carswell of Santa Fe pondered climate change and New Mexico’s future. You can read her essay, “Drought, dread and family in the American Southwest” here. -Cody Hooks with the Taos News is taking a three-part look at drought in New Mexico. His first story is on the state’s water planning process. -If you missed it a few days ago, New Mexico State Engineer Tom Blaine dismissed the Augustin Plains Ranch water application as “speculative.” Locals are happy, though wary, and the company called the move “short-sighted.” Here’s the story. At NMPR, we also wrote about drought and El Niño. (And found Gov. Susana Martinez still hadn’t convened the state’s Drought Task Force.)
-Ryan Lowery with the Las Vegas Optic reported on a land-access dispute in northern New Mexico involving the State Land Office.
When Carol Pittman heard that New Mexico’s top water official denied a company’s application to pump groundwater from below the valley where she lives, she was thrilled. “What could be better?” she said. “That project would have just destroyed the place.”
For 11 years, Pittman and her neighbors fought plans by Augustin Plains Ranch, LLC to pump 54,000 acre feet of water each year from the aquifer below the Valley of San Agustin.* That wide, dramatic valley lies west of the Rio Grande Valley and is flanked by volcanic fields and mountains. Most of the valley is in Catron County, whose total population tops out at about 3,500 people. For more than 20 years, Pittman and her husband have lived near the community of Datil, on land that borders the Augustin Plains Ranch.
Anyone who recently watched recent floodwaters rip down the Santa Fe River or the Rio Puerco—or had a skylight punctured by hail—might be tempted to declare that the annual monsoons ended New Mexico’s drought. But breaking the drought requires more than a handful of rainstorms—even big storms. And grappling with its impacts means policymakers should listen to scientists and constituents, ranging from farmers to city-dwellers. “Even though we got a lot of rain, and there’s great reporting on floods and great pictures on the internet, it’s a slow process to make up for what we’ve lost,” said New Mexico’s State Climatologist, David DuBois. The weekly New Mexico Drought Monitor, released Thursday, shows improvements in New Mexico, mainly in the eastern part of the state. But 99.9 percent of the state is still in drought, with 46 percent of the state experiencing exceptional or extreme drought conditions.
-New Mexico’s rig count has reached an all-time high, and 101 of the 103 rigs currently drilling new wells are in the Permian Basin. Last year at this time, there were 57 active rigs in the state. -Andrew Oxford has a story at the Santa Fe New Mexican about the aftermath of the Ute Park Fire. According to his story:
The flames of the Ute Park Fire, which burned around 37,000 acres in this rural part of the state, were extinguished in mid-June, but communities are still grappling with strained water systems, the prospect of flash flooding and the hit to tourism. -Sandia Peak Ski Company knows it’s in for more snowless winters.
For the first time since early April, the Middle Rio Grande is flowing continuously. Storms late last week pushed water into the river and its tributaries and, according to the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, the stretch of the river to Elephant Butte Reservoir is expected to remain continuous for about a week, maybe longer if the state gets more rain. The Rio Puerco, which empties into the Rio Grande north of Socorro, hit over 7,000 cubic feet per second late Thursday night. Those peak storm flows are exciting to watch—whether from the banks or on the USGS stream gage website—but they are temporary. Already, the Rio Grande through Albuquerque is down to less than 500 cfs.
Earlier this month, a trickle of water started flowing back into the Rio Grande near the Pueblo of Isleta. It wasn’t runoff from a thunderstorm or storm drain. Rather, it was part of a deal between Audubon New Mexico, local municipalities and The Club at Las Companas to put water in the river for the benefit of the environment. After a poor snow season in the mountains, the Middle Rio Grande started drying in early April, when it should have been running high with snowmelt. As of Thursday, about 30 miles are dry south of Socorro and another mile is dry where the river flows through Isleta. The Rio Grande will never be what it once was decades, nevermind centuries, ago.
-The Associated Press reported that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management decided to push back a lease sale in southeastern New Mexico that included parcels near Carlsbad Caverns National Park. To see more on that issue, check out the story we ran about the lease sale earlier this month. Want to get the NM Environment Review in your email a day early? Sign up here! -The Santa Fe New Mexican’s Rebecca Moss, as part of a reporting partnership with ProPublica, uncovered the Trump administration’s move to “inhibit independent oversight” of the nation’s nuclear facilities, including Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s a must-read story for New Mexicans.